What Did This Pope Really Say – Are Atheists Redeemed By Good Works…

… You know what we really need; a blog called What Did This Pope Really Say, manned by top Catholic thinkers – meaning, not me – to counter the secular media’s propensity to skew His Holiness’s words to fit a particular narrative.

The HuffPo headlines screams, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.

The article then goes on to pick, out of context, the juiciest comments…

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” [Full text of homily found here]

So what exactly did this Pope really say? Fr. Longenecker breaks it down.

This might seem on first reading to be teaching just what the Huffington Post proclaims: “Pope says Atheists are Saved by Doing Good Works.”

Unfortunately for those who wish to paint Pope Francis as a lovable liberal, in fact, the Pope is simply affirming certain truths that any somewhat knowledgable Catholic will uphold. First, that Christ died to redeem the whole world. We can distinguish his redemptive work from the acceptance of salvation. He redeemed the whole world. However, many will reject that saving work. In affirming the universality of Christ’s redemptive work we are not universalists. To say that he redeemed the whole world is not to conclude that all will be saved.

Secondly, the Pope is also affirming that all humans are created in God’s image and are therefore created good. Yes, created good, but that goodness is wounded by original sin. Thirdly, he is affirming that all men and women are obliged to pursue what is beautiful, good and true. Natural virtue is possible–even obligatory, but natural virtue on its own is not sufficient for salvation. Grace is necessary to advance beyond natural virtue to bring the soul to salvation. The Pope does not say atheists being good on their own will be saved. He says they, like all men, are redeemed by Christ’s death and their good works are the starting place where we can meet with them–the implication being “meet with them in an encounter that leads eventually to faith in Christ.”

So no, the Pope didn’t say good works will save or redeem atheists. As far as I know, atheists don’t think they are in need of saving or redemption. If they don’t acknowledge a Savior the idea of saving and redeeming good works is pointless.

Clearly the Pope is talking about evangelization. OK, I get it. Fr. L did a superb job with his explanation, but here is the cause of my consternation… what exactly do atheists consider “good works”?

To an atheists, good and bad are morally ambiguous and relative ideas; flexible little things to bend and twist depending on mood and circumstance. To a believer, moral goods are clearly defined in commandants, dogmas, and tenets of faith.

A prime example; an atheist might feel advocating for abortion is “doing good works”.

So then what?

Don’t get me wrong. I love this pope and his boundless enthusiasm, but sometimes, sometimes I really really miss Benedict. Not that anything he ever said wasn’t misconstrued either.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • AshleyWB

    “To an atheists, good and bad are morally ambiguous and relative ideas; flexible little things to bend and twist depending on mood and circumstance. To a believer, moral goods are clearly defined in commandants, dogmas, and tenets of faith.”

    “Believers” and “atheists” are a pretty broad categories. I’ve talked to Catholics who are biggest moral relativists on the planet, fundamentalists whose naive faith in free-market survival of the fittest is both horrifying and laughable, and atheists who believe in rigid moral codes. The world is a lot more complex than a simple black-and-white binary.

  • Karla McNeese

    I love this Pope! I am a former atheist and I can tell you that when someone speaks out to this group (or any others who struggle with faith) it does a tremendous amount of good. I do believe this was his intention.
    To the best of my knowledge no one is “saved” through good works, not Catholic, not atheist, not anyone. Belief in Jesus and his grace is what saves us, nothing else. Our works are there to demonstrate the love of Jesus to others, just as the Pope is doing here.

    • http://womanofvalorpsalm39.blogspot.com/ Andrea


  • MainlineP

    Not to split hairs, but Rev. Longeneckers’s commentary is not what the Pope said, though the former is clearly standard RC apologetics and dogma. The homily is really of little interest to those atheists, since they don’t care about natural law or objective truths in any case. The homily is however of more interest to your fellow Christians but in two very different ways. No amount of spinning by Longenecker or anyone else will assuage fundamentalist evangelicals. They hold quite clearly that their is no salvation, nor redemption, outside Jesus. Period, full stop. Mainline Protestants have long taken the view of Francis (we are all redeemed by the Blood of Calvary), and been pilloried by the evangelicals for such views. Culture wars have made you RC and the fundies very strange bedfellows.

  • tedseeber

    That, too, is where I get hung up. What an atheist considers a good work, and what a Catholic considers a good work, often is very different.

    For instance, an Atheist might consider it an act of great charity to drive a pregnant teenager to the abortionist.

  • http://womanofvalorpsalm39.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    My husband is agnostic/atheist. He says, or he certainly said when we first met, he didn’t believe in a God who would allow suffering to happen.
    But I believe he will be saved despite his lack of faith because, even though he may not recognize what he is responding to, he responds to God.
    About a year after we got married I had a conversion experience, a sense of the numinous. I told him about it and he came to Church, clearly searching, but didn’t get it.
    We tried for a long time for children and then conceived, as I believe God told me we would, after divine mercy. However, very sadly, we lost our child. My husband payed before we knew and I expected him to be convinced afterwards that Od didn’t exist. The opposite happened, he encouraged me to go to mass and told me that he though our child was ‘with her, she was holding him’ (Mary).
    I nearly lost my faith, he came with me to mass to encourage me to go. He always said that my faith in that period gave him hope, I don’t know how.
    We were offered IVF etc and when, much to my relief and I believe answers to my prayers, it wasn’t an option for us he accepted the path of adoption.
    When we met our little girl we took her to a cathedral and he brought up the prays we’d offered up, content that we had our child. He is happy to baptise her.
    Could this mean what Pope Francis is saying. Some people don’t know they’re following God, the God they’ve been told aout is so awful that they would never follow him. Bu nevertheless gods grace guides them.

    • nannon31

      Very wonderful story. Andrea, faith can be implicit and subconscious in sincere atheists who are trying their best. St. Justin Martyr at the beginning of the Church talked so of those before Christ in Greece who acted rationally as best they could…Book I, chapter 46: “and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.”. Want scripture? Christ twice praised the heretical Samaritans who Esra rightly would not permit to help with building the temple.
      Now Socrates thought suicide rational but countless Popes from 1253 AD onward til 1830 AD thought “burning heretics” rational but it is now condemned in “Splendor of the Truth” section 80 “coercion of spirit” as intrinsic evil.
      You are there to be the final proof, the radical proof of God to your husband. Skip apologetics….it’s often salesmanship and lawyer talk. You will guide your husband to heaven by being Christ rather than discussing Christ.

  • Captain DG

    I am going freely OT because I have remembered to say that the ‘look’ given in the Crescat admin pic is beautifully answered by the ‘look’ in Tito Edwards The Best in Catholic Blogging pic. You be the judge: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/10-things-someone-should-have-told-me-before-college-catholic-radio-faithfu/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez


      • Captain DG

        I don’t mean the same look. But both pix have looks that convey an attitude which not all blogger pics do. Yours is ‘I know what’s up, so don’t mess with me.’ Tito’s is ‘I know what’s up and it’s all kind of funny if a bit strange.’

  • http://www.catholicismforcutters.com/ Broken Whole

    To an atheists, good and bad are morally ambiguous and relative ideas; flexible little things to bend and twist depending on mood and circumstance. To a believer, moral goods are clearly defined in commandants, dogmas, and tenets of faith.

    I think we need to be careful to distinguish between the fact that atheism doesn’t give a good philosophical basis for objective morality and assuming that all atheists don’t believe in objective morality. Most folks—religious and not—will clearly name some things truly “good” and some things truly “bad” when pushed to do so.

    Secondly, having dogmas and tenets of faith is not, in itself, a guarantee that one will have the right sense of right and wrong. Child sacrifice, after all, was generally practiced by religious societies as part of religious rituals.

  • http://www.catholicismforcutters.com/ Broken Whole

    Leaving aside the (important) division between “redemption” and “salvation,” it’s worth noting—as First Things has—that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has himself indicated, in accord with the teachings of the Church, that non-believers may indeed go to heaven: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/05/23/pope-francis-atheists-heaven/

  • dabhidh

    I don’t know if Pope Francis intended it this way, but his point about good works and the universal saving power of the Blood of Christ actually seems like a critique of Calvinism, which declares that Christ’s sacrifice was not for all but only for “the elect”, and which adherents sometimes will go as far as to say that no deed, no matter how apparently good, can be actually good unless it is done to the glory of God.

  • Thew

    So I think this pope gets the media; unlike Benedict when the media spins the words of Francis they do so in positive light. I think may be part of his plan.

  • RosieO.Grady

    Even an atheist can have a moral compass that works just fine. To believe in God does not necessarily make one moral or even good. That is a given. The Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada, believed in God and was a Catholic, besides. Were his deeds moral?

  • Maggie

    Some atheists are not moral relativists… they do have the *natural* law just as much as anyone. To be sure, not all of them acknowledge it (much less obey it) but some do.

  • JoeM

    I believe you’re wrong in your summation! I do believe the intended message Pope Francis words were that “all, even atheists, can be saved”.. He did not say “only by faith”, and “atheist” itself implies lack of faith.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez

      No, you are wrong. A Catholic pope would never say “only by faith” to begin with.

  • RosieO.Grady